Students in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) are being told not to speak during lunch breaks in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Citing concerns about a lack of socialization and increased screen time, parents of students are speaking out about the TDSB’s strict rule.

Parent Teresa Ostrom told CTV News Toronto on Friday that she did not find out about the policy until she had the chance to meet her child’s teacher face-to-face. Her child attends Alvin Curling Public School.

“My kid had never mentioned it, so I was actually shocked,” said Ostrom. “We were told that the kids were not permitted to speak while eating lunch because they remove their masks to eat.”

She said she worries about her child’s ability to socialize. 

“I just felt so sad for the kids,” she said. “They’ve missed out on so much and especially so much unstructured socialization, which is what chatting with friends during lunch is, so it just seemed like one more thing taken away from them.”

Parent Narie Ju Hong echoed similar concerns and described the policy as cruel. 

“I’m a high school teacher, and we don’t tell the students not to talk,” said Hong. She said her child’s teacher plays French television shows during the lunch break. 

Toronto District School Board (TDSB) spokesperson Ryan Bird said in a statement emailed to True North on Monday that this measure was enacted based on the advice of Toronto Public Health. 

“We have required lunches to be brief and quiet — guidance which has been in place since September 2020,” said Bird. “By keeping talking to a minimum while eating and while masks are off, we are reducing the possibility of the spread of COVID-19.” 

Bird said when students have a brief lunch and spend less time with their masks off, students can go outside and talk with their friends sooner. 

A study conducted by researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children suggested COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns had a significant impact on youth mental health in Ontario, and screen time is to blame for it. 

The early data, which has not been peer reviewed, showed that more than half of 758 kids aged eight to 12 years old and three quarters of 520 adolescents aged 13 to 18 years old reported major symptoms of depression from February to March. 

Increased screen time had a wide-ranging impact on the mental health of children and adolescents, according to the study. 

Principal investigator of the study Dr. Daphne Korczak said more screen time was associated with increases in irritability, hyperactivity, inattention, depression, and anxiety in children. 

“Kids need school, they need their friends, and they need to have fun,” said Korczak. “As our focus shifts to reopening society, we must have meaningful conversations about prioritizing the needs of children and youth.”

Children born after 2009 are ineligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the moment, which means the majority of elementary school students remain unvaccinated. Toronto Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said on Wednesday that she hopes to see approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children aged five years old and up in the coming weeks.